The death of historian Ralph Raico on December 13, 2016, robbed us of an erudite and insightful scholar whose long life made him witness to (and analyst of) massive changes in American society involving state building, imperialist wars, and loss of effective freedom. Born in 1936, Raico attended Ludwig von Mises’s famous New York seminar and translated Mises’s Liberalism into English in 1962. He did his Ph.D. under Friedrich von Hayek at the University of Chicago, writing a dissertation, The Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville, and Lord Acton (1970), recently published. Raico taught European history at Buffalo State University for several decades and was a popular lecturer at Cato Institute functions in the 1980s. He was a contributor to many publications, including New Individualist Review (of which he was a founder), The Libertarian Forum, Libertarian Review, The Journal of Libertarian Studies, Inquiry magazine (where he was book review editor), Journal des Économistes et des Études Humaines, and Independent Review, and he wrote four books (see below).
Liberalism and economics
Raico’s education fitted him to grapple with such questions as the relationship of history to economics, the relationship of economics to classical liberalism, and the broader history of liberalism. Austrian economic theory tied liberalism to property and markets, while also imposing limits on what could have happened historically. Sound economics and the critique of the state were systematically related.
French liberal class analysis
Raico contributed to — and made good use of — the study of French Restoration liberalism pioneered by Leonard Liggio (see also the work of Australian historian David Hart). From the 1820s Charles Comte, Charles Dunoyer, and Augustin Thierry developed a liberal theory of class conflict in which the state (old regime, feudal landlords, military commanders, bureaucracy) is fundamentally external to and parasitic on society. Productive classes had little need of the state, but the state and its allies needed them for their revenues and there was the seedbed of oppression, empire, and war.
In contrast to Anglophile liberals such as Hayek, Raico found this French liberal tradition analytically superior, while making room for Anglophone liberals of like views (e.g., Richard Cobden, John A. Hobson, Albert Jay Nock, Frank Chodorov, and Murray Rothbard). He came to believe that the ideas found in this liberal tradition provided the best set of internal standards for liberalism as a theory of society and thus the best guidance in any search for its essence. (Here see the essays in Raico’s Classical Liberalism and the Austrian School, 2012.)
The internal critique applied
In Die Partei der Freiheit [The Party of Freedom] (2000), Raico focused on the largely forgotten history of German liberalism, from the late 18th into the early 20th century. He unearthed a good many sound German liberals, recounted their successes and failures, and concluded that Germany’s famous Sonderweg (historical “separate path”) was less than inevitable.
Raico’s account substantially rehabilitated Eugen Richter (1838–1906), leader of the left-liberal opposition Freisinn party, who held to firm principles, when most liberals were cooperating with Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Dismissed by his enemies and later historians as a stingy, petty-bourgeois doctrinaire, Richter was, as Raico wrote, “the last genuine liberal who still remained in the parliament of a great nation,” a judgment he supported with massive evidence.
In assessing Friedrich Naumann — seen by contemporary Germans as a “model” German liberal — Raico took on a quite different job. Naumann (1860–1919) began as a Christian socialist, but soon took up secular reforms, including a larger German navy. A self-proclaimed “social liberal,” he hoped to do all manner of “national-social” good. This implied a great deal of state activity. Although it would be unfair to call Naumann a national socialist in some later sense, Raico makes a good case that Naumann was a destroyer of German liberalism.
Late 19th-century liberal default and sellout
As his work progressed, Raico was increasingly disgusted by the degeneration of 19th-century European liberal parties into “machines for the exploitation of society by the now victorious predatory middle classes, who profited from tariffs, government contracts, state subsidies for railroads and other industries, state-sponsored banking, and the legion of jobs available in the ever-expanding bureaucracy” (Great Wars and Great Leaders, 2010, ix). Here his analysis echoed that of an earlier generation of historians that included Carlton J.H. Hayes, Robert Binkley, and John U. Nef. Raico cited the Italian “rent-seeking” state as a case in point (Classical Liberalism, 278–79).
Liberal default, sellout, and internal rot could also involve an authoritarian turn, as when the pioneering German Liberal John Prince-Smith (1809–1874) succumbed to what Raico calls the “Pareto syndrome.” Alarmed by the supposed communist threat to liberal society, Prince-Smith looked for salvation in an all-powerful state. (Naturally, Raico asked the socialists and communists to take some responsibility for this development.) Once more, Italy in 1919–1920 was a case in point, when revolutionary bombast from anarchists, socialists, and communists drove property owners into the arms of fascism (Raico in Journal of Libertarian Studies, Spring 1996).
Revisionism, war, and foreign policy
In Raico’s opinion, it was war more than anything else that destroyed the emerging liberal order. His essay “World War I: The Turning Point” (in Great Wars) describes World War I as an utter disaster that set the tone for the rest of the dreadful 20th century, with its mass slaughter, ideological extremism, and massive and costly state-building, not to mention the war’s negative impact on American politics and life. Here Raico’s command of the historical literature and his hard-won immunity to wartime hysteria and official mythology served him well.
As I have written elsewhere, “In a typical Raico essay, the reader finds solid research, detailed knowledge of relevant sources, deft deployment of quotations, and careful interpretation, complemented by wit, devastating understatement, and an occasional outburst that might seem intemperate had he not just written several pages that render the point both inevitable and obvious” (Independent Review, Summer 2012). This applies equally well to Raico’s treatment of any subject and not just questions of war and peace.
World War I was of course the seedbed of World War II, followed by the Cold War — and thereafter by the mind-numbingly senseless adventurism of U.S. elites after the fall of the Soviet Union.
State atrocities and genocide
With so much “surplus death” (to use R.E. Canjar’s phrase) inflicted by state-building elites in war and peace in the 20th century, Raico made serious inquiries into mass atrocities. His subjects included Britain’s World War I starvation blockade of Germany, Truman’s use of nuclear weapons, and Soviet and other mass murders. Here he was above all the honest broker.
The lost America
Raico’s later writings reflect the righteous anger of a latter-day immigrant — the child of people who moved to a certain kind America, only to see it destroyed by a dramatic and degrading centralization of political power. This comes out in his poignant review of Arthur Ekirch’s Civilian and the Military: A History of the American Anti-Militarist Tradition (2010 ) in Classical Liberalism. (Raico’s anger in this connection bears comparison with Michael Novak’s attack, in The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics , on the nagging political style of the old Northeastern WASP elite, a style which masked their coldly rational use of power.)
In any case, Raico came to believe that Americans would put up with anything and everything that the American Leviathan state could heap on them.
Raico’s views matured over time. Starting in the waning Old Right movement, where he met Murray Rothbard and Leonard Liggio, he adopted much of the New Left historical revisionism of the 1960s — not on faith but because his own researches confirmed much of what those writers said. His work treats respectfully such New Left historians as William Appleman Williams, Walter LaFeber (with whom he was sometimes in touch), Barton Bernstein, and Gar Alperovitz, as well as many other scholars not so neatly classified: Paul Boyer, Alfred de Zayas (an international lawyer concerned with ethnic cleansing), Martin S. Sherry, Gore Vidal, and many others.
At the same time, Raico never abandoned his old (and Old Right) sources, where he thought they were correct. He continued to cite Charles Callan Tansill, Edwin Borchard and William Potter Lage, Charles A. Beard, John T. Flynn, and others. In doing history Raico sought a left/right synthesis of all worthy revisionist history (not every revisionist thesis is necessarily sound), in the belief that constant correction of officially proclaimed history is vitally important, especially in the area of war and peace. Yet all the while, he remained a firm anti-communist, as his writings on the Soviet Union, Trotsky, and others show. Marxism, as the official ideology of a number of states, had disastrously demonstrated the folly of living by unworldly abstractions.
Raico resembled the left-wing historian Gabriel Kolko in one important respect: having studied matters in detail, neither historian had the slightest respect for the goals, abilities, or reputations of the American political elite (e.g., Raico’s references to Franklin Roosevelt’s “constant lying” [his italics]). Such candor is a valuable, if rare, trait in an American historian. Faced with what he saw as excesses of philosophy, he often remarked that history cannot be done “a priori.”
Some might see a relative “conservative” turn in Raico’s later work (in some generic sense). I think this much can be said: Raico increasingly came to doubt that libertarianism can be applied without regard to historical facts on the ground. He also showed, late in life, some engagement with classical republicanism or civic humanism, an outlook which had never been completely separate from the history of liberalism. He touched on these matters in his dissertation with respect to Benjamin Constant, and much later, in his treatment of Eugen Richter. Constant saw, as Raico wrote, an “inner contradiction in the free society, which can only be compensated for by bringing into play anti-utilitarian forces, such as religious faith….” (The Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy). On another occasion, he wrote that “recent experience showed [Constant] that certain sacrifices had been necessary to fight tyranny. Who had fought Napoleon tooth and nail? Was it the bourgeoisie of Paris….? Or was it the peasants of Russia and Spain, who, having nothing to lose, risked their lives to throw off foreign domination?” (“La Contribution des Auteurs Liberaux Français du Dix-Neuvieme Siecle a la Controverse sur les Valeurs et Conflits Culturels,” 2001; my translation).
In the same essay Raico expounded Molinari’s “reactionary anarchism” and noted his anti-Union view of the American Civil War. Developing Molinari’s analysis of group relations in complex societies, Raico asked whether liberalism really requires an assault on entrenched cultural differences and a war against private “discrimination” (“La Contribution des Auteurs Liberaux Français du Dix-Neuvieme Siecle a la Controverse sur les Valeurs et Conflits Culturels,” my translation).
As for Raico’s style and delivery, the reader may consult YouTube, where many of his lectures can be found. They show off his sharp-witted New York Italian delivery, classic understatement, and biting humor. For example, “closest I ever came to being a communist, I was a Republican” (referring to his leadership role in the NYC Youth for Taft). Or his comment that, by “specializing in the collection of deserts” (Eritrea, Somalia, Libya), Italian imperialists apparently hoped to “have the world by the throat” when deserts became valuable. Or his paraphrase of the evasive official Russian reply in early August 1914 to German questions about rumored Russian mobilization: “Nothing to it. Some of the guys like to get together and sort of march….” (Quotes from Cato World at War Lecture, 1983.)
Philosopher David Gordon writes of being “impressed by [Raico’s] intelligence, his scholarship, and, not least, his humor” (Classical Liberalism, xxiii). And indeed, Ralph was always ready with devastatingly funny quips — a resource that served him well when handling hecklers and hostile questions. And then there was his constant, impatient New Yorker’s refrain, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Last of all — it goes almost without saying — Ralph Raico was a friend and colleague who is sorely missed.
Books by Ralph Raico:
- Die Partei der Freiheit [The Party of Freedom] (2000).
- The Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville, and Lord Acton (2010 ).
- Great Wars and Great Leaders (2010).
- Classical Liberalism and the Austrian School (2012).
• See also “FDR — The Man, the Leader, the Legacy” (Future of Freedom Foundation: 1998/1999).
This article was originally published in the May 2018 edition of Future of Freedom.